Same Names, Different District: Why Superintendent Searches Can Be a Game of Musical Chairs

By Denisa R. Superville — May 07, 2018 7 min read
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It seems like whenever a big-city school district is looking for a new superintendent, some familiar names pop up.

See most recently: John Deasy, the former Los Angeles schools chief, who, until he pulled out, was a finalist for the superintendent job in Clark County, Nev.. And Andrés Alonso, the former Baltimore city schools superintendent who, according to Chalkbeat, is said to be in the running to lead the school system in Newark, N.J.

Alonso was also a finalist for the Los Angeles job before he withdrew his name. And Deasy last week landed a job running California’s Stockton Unified school district about 50 miles south of Sacramento.

So why do the same names keep emerging in big district after big district?

“There is a supply problem—no question about it,” said Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “That’s why you keep seeing the same names. The superintendency is a very difficult job, and board members, of course, would prefer to get somebody on board who’s experienced to come into their districts and run them.”

Fewer people are also applying for those jobs, Domenech said. The supply is further constricted by head hunters who seek out candidates rather than opening up the job to any and all comers, making it more difficult for educators who hold central office positions to break through. Additionally, school boards often face pressure to look for external candidates even if there is a deputy superintendent or cabinet member who can be promoted, he said.

“I think search committees and boards and governors have a natural inclination to look at people and say ‘Well, they have done the job before and we can have some level of confidence that they can do it again,’ ” said Mike Magee, the CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Chiefs for Change, a group focused on preparing cabinet-level district employees from diverse backgrounds to fill superintendent jobs. “And that does create some challenges for emerging leaders who are looking at their first chief’s role.”

The supply problem creates a competitive environment that can lead to poaching from one district to another. And that’s not good for school systems or the children they serve, Domenech said.

When Richard Carranza, for example, was enticed to become the schools chancellor in New York City after less than two years in Houston, that left a vacuum in that district, which is facing a possible state takeover and is dealing with the financial fallout from Hurricane Harvey damage. The Miami school district would have faced a similar leadership vacuum if New York City’s first pick, Alberto Carvalho, had taken the job.

“It’s almost like the [musical] chairs game, where everybody is going around the chair, the music stops, everybody tries to grab a chair and sit down—and somebody is left standing,” Domenech said.

Domenech said that when the same candidates land on every finalist list, it means that talented district leaders who work as deputy superintendents, chief operating officers, chief academic officers, and technology directors are not getting a chance to step into the role.

He advises school boards to look within to fill superintendent vacancies.

“There is a great advantage to that because now you can promote somebody who is familiar with the system [and] can move right into the job easily,” he said. “They’re a known quantity to the board and the community. That can work very well, as opposed to bringing in somebody from outside who is going to have a learning curve moving into their new position.”

And even when the familiar names pop up, that does not always mean that they get the job. After the big names pulled out, the Los Angeles school board, for example, decided to go with someone who has no experience leading a school or district: Austin Beutner, a former investment banker, former deputy mayor, former official in the U.S. State Department, and a former publisher of the Los Angeles Times. The school board is counting on Beutner to boost its graduation rate&now nearly 80 percent—to 100 percent.

No Shortage of Talent, Just Little Support

Like death and taxes, here’s another thing that’s certain: the superintendent is going to leave. And in urban systems that departure, on average, is usually going to come within five years, according to a 2014 survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, the national organization that represents mostly urban school districts and the entire state of Hawaii.

But school districts, unlike other industries, including business and even sports, do not do a good job of grooming talent from within and planning for the future.

Why haven’t school districts focused on this?

“There are so many challenges in U.S. public education, and ultimately you have to choose what you are going to prioritize,” Magee said. “I just don’t think we have sufficiently prioritized this work.”

When Magee joined Chiefs for Change in 2015, state education commissioners told him that one of the most challenging and important issues was “that the pipeline of future leaders for our urban systems and our state departments of education was not nearly as robust enough and not nearly diverse enough and that there was not really a game plan for solving that problem in their mind,” he said.

That’s one of the reasons Chiefs for Change started the “Future Chiefs” program, which focuses on district leaders who are about two or three years away from running a school system and need help to get ready for the job. They are matched with mentors—people who are already school district superintendents and can provide them with “wisdom and experience and strategic advice.” Future chiefs get help with everything from the job search to filling in gaps in their experience.

Being the number two or three in a district is very different from being in the top job—a role that involves a lot more politics and interaction with the school board and community. And chief academic officers, chief operating officers, and other central office staff need support programs and experiences to help them with that aspect of the superintendency.

“What we have seen is that there is no shortage of very, very talented people ready willing and able to lead urban school districts, but they are, on the whole, quite poorly supported both as they explore their options for leadership and in the event that they actually are hired as chief of districts and states,” he said.

Domenech says, yes, long-term planning can alleviate the supply problem. But school districts may face hurdles trying to do that because, unlike the business and sports sectors, everyone involved in the public school system—from teachers, parents, business, and the community—wants a say in picking the new superintendent.

The AASA has been running a national superintendent certification program and an Urban Superintendents Academy—both focused on training aspiring superintendents for the top job. The urban superintendent program has had a good track record of its graduates moving up the ladder, he said.

Among the graduates: Anthony Hamlet, a former professional football player, who is now superintendent in Pittsburgh, and Traci Davis, the superintendent of the Washoe County school district in Nevada.

Last week, Chiefs for Change “Future Chiefs” member Jesus Jara, a deputy superintendent in Orange County, Fla., was selected to lead Nevada’s Clark County school district, which includes Las Vegas. (In an interesting twist, after search firm Ray and Associates provided a list of finalists with no ties to the district, the school board asked it to go back to its list of applicants to find candidates who were current Clark County employees or had worked for the district.) In March, Florida’s Palm Beach County chose Donald Fennoy, a member of the “Future Chiefs” program and the district’s chief operating officer to replace outgoing superintendent Robert Avossa. Avossa, also a Chiefs for Change member, is Fennoy’s mentor. Others in the program have also successfully made the jump.

While Chiefs for Change focuses on educators who are about two or three years from leading their own district, Magee argues that the pipeline should start even earlier with teachers and teacher-leaders. There should also be better ways—including more coordination and partnerships—to identify and support educators.

“There are teacher-leaders and assistant principals all over America, who 10 or 15 or 20 years from now would make outstanding district superintendents or state education commissioners, and we don’t have enough organizations or people involved in identifying them and creating the kind of career pathways that they need in order to reach those places,” he said. “It’s just a numbers game. The greater [number of] people we support to move up their own career ladders, the more people we’ll have in finalist pools for superintendencies who are really ready to lead—and not just lead, but to change systems in ways that are best for kids.”

Image source: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.